The centrist shift of the Republican Party, first observed last fall with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's landslide re-election, continued this week with GOP establishment candidates defeating tea party challengers in primary races. The most visible was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's trouncing of a conservative opponent who was once running ahead of him in polls.
Mr. McConnell is nobody's moderate, but he's no tea party absolutist either. What he represents — and what voters in Kentucky clearly endorsed — is an establishment Republican, the kind who believes in lower taxes and smaller government but not in shutting down the federal government or other forms of self-destructive behavior in the cause of extremism.
Nor is Mr. McConnell the only establishment candidate to fare well in Tuesday's matchups. The more conservative candidates lost in GOP primaries in Oregon, Pennsylvania and Georgia as well. The Keystone State's Rep. Bill Shuster, who once dared to admit he'd support a per-mile fee on motorists to raise money for transportation projects, easily won his party's nomination for an eighth term. His 9th congressional district runs right along much of Maryland's northwest border.
We can only hope that Republican candidates in Maryland are paying attention. If voters in Kentucky have had enough of tea party candidates, why should anyone believe that residents of one of the country's bluest states are itching for a revolution? Maybe in rural districts on the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland the tea party approach may offer some appeal, but it looks like a losing strategy for candidates seeking statewide office.
Yet it's not clear that the message has gotten through to the Republicans running to be Maryland's next governor. They've continued to make reducing — and in some cases eliminating — the state income tax a top priority despite the prospect of blowing an $8.5 billion hole in the state's budget and shortchanging public education, a cause some in the Maryland GOP have actually supported in the past.
Recently, former Del. Ellen Sauerbrey endorsed for governor Harford County Executive David Craig, who has proposed phasing out the income tax. The irony is that when Ms. Sauerbrey ran for governor in 1994 — winning her party's nomination and coming within roughly 6,000 votes of defeating her Democratic opponent, then-Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening — she pledged only to cut the state income tax rate, not eliminate the tax entirely. Remember: She was considered an arch-conservative at the time, and this was in the tax-cut fever days of 1994, the same year as the Republican Revolution, the Newt Gingrich-led effort that gave the party a majority in the House for the first time in 40 years.
Eight years later, eliminating the income tax wasn't a central tenet of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s platform when he was elected Maryland's first Republican governor in 36 years either. His 2002 campaign focused on legalizing slots to raise revenue to cover projected budget shortfalls — and finance public education under the Thornton Plan.
The tea party hasn't been much of a political force in Maryland the way it has in other states, which makes the Republicans' rightward tilt all the more confounding. It may be a good way to get a gig filling in for Sean Hannity on the radio — as Daniel Bongino, the former U.S. Secret Service agent who is running in Maryland's 6th Congressional District, has done repeatedly this year — but not to win the hearts and minds of the electorate. Mr. Bongino won less than 27 percent of the vote when he ran against U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin two years ago.
The victories by Mr. McConnell and other establishment candidates no doubt worry Democrats who were counting on running against tea party types whose rabid approach to issues like taxes and immigration might turn away mainstream voters. But will it change the political culture beyond the stump? Just as Maryland's gubernatorial candidates have been slow to recognize the shift-to-center trend, it's not clear whether congressional Republicans are willing to change either — aside from choosing not to let any budget standoff cause the federal government to be shut down between now and November, that is.
Much has been made about Maryland being a one-party state because Democratic voters outnumber their Republican counterparts by a 2-to-1 margin. But it's not voters who are at fault if GOP candidates can't reject the kind of tea party extremism that is losing traction everywhere, let alone in the Free State.